Out of Context
Thoughts & Reflections
When children move schools, from one state to another, from a Montessori school to a traditional program, any variety of reasons, it’s not uncommon for children to undergo some form of testing, to determine where their skills fall in comparison to the children in the group they’ll be joining. The examiner states your child is “behind” his peers in letter identification.
Parents are so eager to learn their child began work in the math area, and ask a young child, what’s this? While delightedly holding up a numeral 1. The child stares blankly.
You’re out with other children and parents when a child says, “that’s A.” You know your child has started spontaneously reading words aloud, but when you ask her to identify a letter, she rarely gets it right.
So what does this all mean?
Is your child’s teacher not being truthful when she states your child has been making excellent progress on her Sandpaper Letters, and has even begun writing? How about that Big Math your child’s been talking about — is that in his imagination, or perhaps the work of a friend, not his own?
Why can your child not do something for the examiner you’ve seen him do time and time again??
This can be confusing, frustrating, and even worrisome.
We thought we’d unpack this a bit here, because, although there are sometimes signs a child is giving us that they need more help, often there are logical answers to these behaviors and concerns.
Let’s take the example of testing. Frequently, this happens with a child who is ready for or during Kindergarten. This child is keenly aware of how the world works. She’s learned everything up to now due to hard work, patience, and lots and lots of observation.
A stranger holds up a flashcard and asks, “What’s this?”
Well, it has a letter on it, but everyone knows that. This adult surely knows that letter, and everyone knows the letter “A.” So what is this adult asking? The answer can’t be that simple. I don’t know what he wants me to say.
At this point, everything a child learns, she experiences as common knowledge. Once she can read she has a hard time remembering not being able to. Same with tying shoes, or feeding herself, or any other conquest. Children are absolutely incredulous when you tell them they, too, were once a baby, they, too, couldn’t talk, or walk, or do anything. Often they’re in awe. Sometimes they’ll even laugh aloud, and insist you tell stories of when they were “little” again and again. To them, it’s absolutely unbelievable.
Or, your child is busy playing, completely engrossed in their activity. You ask, hey Marjorie, what’s this? Thinking you’re being casual and unsuspecting, and she looks at you blankly. What’s going on??
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, when there’s a total non-sequitur thrown in? “Eggs! That’s what I needed!” “Did you ever get an answer from her about that thing?”
You are absolutely blindsided. So derailed by the tangent that you’re physically taken aback — blinking, speechless, mind literally goes blank.
Something was triggered for the person you’re speaking to, there was a logical reason for them to ask you that seemingly left-field question, but you’re not able to jump to there with them. We’re used to things happening quickly, alerts on our phone, interruptions from coworkers, emails which require immediate attention. We’re accustomed to it. Imagine a child, whose focus can be so strong it’s almost uninterruptable, being asked a question out of the blue. She honestly doesn’t know what letter that is. The mind focuses on one task at a time, and switching gears is a learned skill, though not always effectively.
When we’re going to “test,” find out which letters or numbers or colors a child knows so we can evaluate when we need to spend more time and where a child is feeling confident, we prepare the child.
Sam, are you available? I’d love to know which colors you know. Bring me a color, and tell me what it is.
It’s a game. It’s on the child’s timeline. It’s at their pace. He knows what we’re doing. I don’t mix up subjects and test a child on myriad content at once.
They’re also not learning in order to be able to prove it to me. We’re not learning “c” for “c’s” sake; we think of words that begin with the sound, and pair the symbol with the sound. Learning is purposeful and in context.
If I asked a child to identify “c” and she couldn’t, but later she matched the Sandpaper Letter to the letter in the Moveable Alphabet and could even write a word with c, such as “cat,” obviously she knows “c.” It’s just an indication of more work for me — I need to help her know, this letter is “c.” — not more work for her.
There’s another reason a child might not be able to come up with the right answer, and it’s tied to being asked spontaneously.
She just can’t be bothered.
Here I am, playing with Legos, coloring, building this puzzle, and all of a sudden you want something from me. It is the same as being told it’s time for dinner, or for bath, or for bed. When you’re in the midst of playing, you just don’t want to stop.
I have learned, if I give you any answer, you’ll stop and I’ll get to go back to what I was doing. I just can’t be bothered.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to know what your child knows. Sometimes you’re concerned about their progress. Sometimes you’re curious. Sometimes their teacher said they just learned something and you can’t wait to see. Sometimes you want to send a video update to grandma and wouldn’t she be so delighted to see this? You’re allowed to ask.
Next time you ask your child, “what’s this?” and hold up number 1 and your child says nothing, or answers “a tree,” or gives any other answer, it’s okay. They’re probably doing just fine.
Written by:Charlotte Wood